The past lives on

1st June 2004, Comments 0 comments

Europe is preparing to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy which marked the start of the Allies' concerted push to roll back Hitler's armies in Europe. For the first time, Germany has been invited to the ceremony, causing outrage among some veterans. Andrew McCathie reports.

World leaders are gathering in France next weekend for the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings on the sweeping beaches of Normandy.

D-day landings

Nobody knows exactly how many died as the assault got under way

But this year's ceremonies are been overshadowed by a storm of protest caused by Germany being invited to the celebrations for the first time in 60 years with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder joining US President George W Bush and Britain's Queen Elizabeth at the commemorations to mark the Allied push to roll back the wartime Nazi occupation.

Next year Europe will mark the 60th anniversary of the collapse of Hitler's 1,000-year Reich and Germany's humiliating defeat at the end of the Second World War.

But while Schroeder's presence at the ceremonies is seen as a sign of the reconciliation that has taken place over the decades of the previous wartime enemies, Germany's invitation to the commemorations has provoked outrage among some veterans.

Some veterans have gone so far to strike their names off the guest list for Sunday's ceremonies in protest at Schroeder's presence, saying that the D-Day commemorations are not the moment to mark Europe's post-war reconciliation, in particular as the war ground on for another year and the Nazis continued their reign of terror across parts of occupied Europe. 

Gerhard Schroeder and Jacques Chirac

Gerhard Schroeder is to join Jacques Chirac in Normandy

"The friendship between France and Germany has been established for decades, nobody doubts that," says Jean-Marie Girault, honorary mayor of Caen, who as a Red Cross volunteer in Caen witnessed for himself the horrors and brutality of war.

Girault is nonetheless upset by the prospect of an official German delegation, led by the Chancellor, paying a visit to the Normandy landing beaches.

"These beaches were killing fields, and are not the right place for the head of a German government," he says.

But not all those in Caen, which lies about 16 kilometres from the Normandy coast where Allied troops began scrambling onto the beaches in the early morning of 6 June 1944. 

At a Caen museum, which houses a vast archive, including a film showing D-Day from both the Allied and Nazi perspectives, its director Jaques Belin sees Schroeder's visit as a natural development of Europe's post-war history.

"A new page in the history books will be turned," says Belin, adding that he hopes that "young Germans will no longer have to bear the burden of the past upon their shoulders."

Germans themselves have rather complicated feelings about the D-Day celebrations. The battle on the beaches of France was a defeat but it also marked a key turning point in the fall of the Nazis and the liberation of both Germany and Europe.

But prior to this year there has also been very little press coverage of the D-Day landings with many younger Germans saying privately they were unsure what D-Day really was.

*quote1*In an interview as part of the build-up to the D-Day anniversary, Schroeder said his invitation to the 60th anniversary ceremonies was a sign of Germany's acceptance as an equal partner by its former enemies.

"The real meaning of this invitation is that the Second World War is over - once and for all," said Schroeder, whose father was killed serving in the Nazi army during the war.
"My presence will make clear ... that we are accepted as an equal partner by the former (World War II) allies," said Schroeder.

Around Caen well-signposted "D-Day routes" allow visitors to follow the path of history. One such route ends in the German military cemetery at La Cambe, which contains 21,000 small stone crosses.

"Never again," reads a message in the La Cambe cemetery's visitor's book.

Nobody knows exactly how many died as the Allied assault got under way under constant machine-gun fire before the Allies gained the upper hand. Many were shot down before they even left the landing vessels.

German bunkers situated on high escarpments overlooking the beach gave gunners a free line of vision to the beaches below.

Today the area is dotted with small, neat houses, many of them weekend homes owned by well-heeled city dwellers.

In addition, authorities have launched major programmes as part of the preparations for Sunday's events, including resurfacing roads, laying car parks, planting flowers and trees and sprucing up neglected memorials.

Away from the strict security surrounding the official ceremonies, in the normally sleepy hamlet of Sainte-Mere-Eglise plans are in full swing for the commemorations. "We're putting on a public festival," says Mayor Marc Lefevre.

"We're not going to block any streets, and everyone is welcome to gather in the market square."

The German military cemetery at La Cambe contains 21,000 small stone crosses

Pride of place in Sainte-Mere-Eglise is a somewhat forlorn figure dangling from an old-fashioned white parachute caught on the steeple of the village church.

The figure is not, as may first appear, a hapless parachutist blown off-course, but is actually a model - a memorial of sorts, one of hundreds that dot this particular corner of rural France, a place where the hand of history has left its mark.

Lefevere expects at least 50,000 visitors to enjoy the occasion. A high point of the festivities will be a giant parachute jump on 5 June. Up to 600 enthusiasts are set to parachute into the marshes around the village - just as they did 60 years before.

"This will probably be the last year that we can celebrate one of the 'big' anniversaries together with the veterans," says Lefevre.

"Already the 80-year-olds are frail and easily tired," he adds. "We see from year to year that more and more family members are coming."

In Ouistreham, north of Caen, yet another memorial overlooks the long stretches of sands and gently rolling sea.

This time it's a fully-restored German bunker, complete with gunner posts manned by life-sized models in full battle dress and a restored communications system. Visitors can clamber onto the bunker roof via iron rungs set into the concrete, and enjoy a clear view of the coastline and the beach below.

June 2004 

[Copyright DPA with Expatica]

Subject: German news, D-Day, George W Bush, Gerhard Schroeder

0 Comments To This Article